Secrets of the decade's most successful controls.
By Hallie Mummert
While direct marketers and Internet services companies strive to determine what roles Web sites and e-mail play in selling directly to consumers and businesses, direct mail continues to rule the direct marketing media mix.
And with good reason. According to the Direct Marketing Association's 2004 Response Rate Study, only telemarketing and dimensional mail were reported by direct marketers as more effective than direct mail at pulling response.
But let's consider these media that are more successful than direct mail. The fact that dimensional mail's bulk and dramatic presentation attracts attention is what prevents it from generating long-term controls—it quickly fatigues. Telemarketing is a phenomenal performer … when you can use it. About 85 million phone numbers are registered with the National Do-Not-Call Registry; which lessens the reach of this medium.
That leaves direct mail as the main tool direct marketers have to communicate with prospects and customers. Yes, other media are quite effective at generating strong response at an efficient cost. But most of these vehicles—insert media, e-mail, space advertising—tend to work well for some business sectors and not for others.
Direct mail is the universal medium, as the mailers of the 257 Axel Andersson Grand Controls in circulation during the last decade can attest. The Axel Andersson Grand Controls are direct mail efforts that have been tracked by the Who's Mailing What! Archive—a direct mail library and research service that collects packages in nearly 200 categories from correspondents nationwide—as having been mailed for three years or more, regardless of whether those years are consecutive. In fact, a good number of the 257 controls analyzed for this cover story have been mailed for longer than three years; for example, a billboard effort from Smithsonian magazine has been in circulation for the entire decade.
In case you are wondering, the name for this direct mail award comes from direct mail veteran Axel Andersson, who, years ago, ran a hugely successful mail-order business in Germany. He currently resides in Florida, where he continues to study direct mail for his consultancy clients. It is Andersson's conviction that there is no better source of direct mail insight than the knowledge that can be gleaned from studying long-term controls, as well as the new controls that beat them.
What follows is an analysis of the 257 Grand Controls cataloged by the Who's Mailing What! Archive between 1995 and 2004, their similarities and their differences. You will not find catalog or retail traffic builders in this research, because they are one-offs that do not achieve control status; also, few B-to-B mailings remain consistent for a three-year span, so this sector is not represented significantly in this coverage.
What you will find are campaigns that are worth millions to their owners, who've spent countless testing dollars refining their efforts to produce these blockbusters—and the secrets of their success are a gold mine for you.
Controls Get Personal
The trend of tailoring direct mail to talk to recipients on an individual basis is a relatively new development that is not yet represented with long-term controls. But that doesn't mean successful direct marketers haven't made ample use of the personalization technologies at their disposal in the past 10 years.
Analysis of the 257 Grand Controls showed that 33.9 percent of these blockbuster mailings were personalized, compared to only 20.5 percent of all direct mail dropped during this same decade.
One of the reasons for this difference is that Grand Control mailings tended to be produced inline more often than efforts in the general mail stream. But, overall, Grand Control mailers, such as Easton Press (for more on this control, see page 31), were more likely to leverage personalization to get the prospect inside the envelope or to forge a connection via the letter.
Premiums and Freemiums Work
The biggest predictor of success between long-term controls and those that burn out within two years can be boiled down to one word: gifts.
Grand Control winners offered premiums or freemiums in their efforts nearly 400 percent more often than their general mail counterparts. Specifically, 44.7 percent of the Grand Controls used such incentives as name and address labels, special reports, tote bags, plush animals, flower bulbs, stickers, calendars, and calculators to drive response. Only 9 percent of the regular mail stream contained efforts that featured this technique.
Prevention magazine proved that more is better when it comes to premiums: Its bookalog control enticed prospective customers with not one but 10 reports on healthy living. And, these premiums took center stage; Prevention displayed all 10 report covers on either the back or front cover of its winning self-mailer.
It's important to note that quite a few of the Grand Controls are from fundraisers, a group that relies heavily on freemiums and premiums to generate response. But, the chicken-or-the-egg philosophy could be at work here—perhaps more fundraising efforts hold onto control status because they use such incentives.
Envelopes Trump Self-mailers
While neither the Grand Controls nor the general mail stream can claim a preponderance of self-mailer efforts, the Grand Controls feature fewer postcards, magalogs, bookalogs and other envelope-less formats.
Self-mailers accounted for only 14 percent of all Grand Control mailings, compared to 25.9 percent of all other non-catalog mail received by the Archive in the past decade.
Professional voucher discount efforts are much to blame for the drop in self-mailers. Their number has grown in the Grand Controls, while double postcards practically have been put out to pasture. A few hang in there, from niche magazine titles that can't make the price-oriented voucher approach work for them.
Another interesting note is that the publishers using billboard efforts can't beat them; Smithsonian, Islands and PC World all have been mailing such controls for a decade or longer.
The range of envelope formats used by Grand Control winners runs the gamut, from #10 and #11 to 6˝ x 9˝, 6˝ x 11˝, 9˝ x 12˝ and many other non-standard sizes.
Slight Preference for Contests
Without a doubt, mailers shrank from sweepstakes and contests after Congress enacted tougher legislation regulating these promotions in 1999. But these response-building tools are still a viable way to add excitement to many a direct marketing offer.
Grand Control campaigns were 50 percent more likely to include a sweepstakes or contest than all other direct mail efforts dropped in the past decade. Of the winning mailings that relied on a sweepstakes to get results, those from publishers leaned toward Fast 50 contests to urge prospects to respond immediately, while fundraising organizations and merchandise marketers favored large cash prizes and raffles.
Interested in what goodies were ponied up to Fast 50 winners? The Economist mailed a PalmPilot contest for several years, while Smithsonian tested into a digital camera after offering a counter-top television for years.
Four-color vs. Black-and-white
Mailing in four-color is the standard for direct mail today. The majority of Grand Controls that are printed in two- or three-color typically originated in the 1990s. The exceptions to this rule are professional discount vouchers mailed heavily by publishers. But even some of these efforts have progressed to include four-color buckslips to promote the magazine or premium offers.
What's interesting to study are the hold-outs, companies who continue to mail two-color and three-color controls year after year. Among these are Project HOPE, Johns Hopkins Health After 50, The Wilderness Society, GE Financial Assurance and International Living. What these companies have in common is a sales hook that is rooted more in what the product can do for customers than what it looks like. This is especially true of efforts from fundraisers like Project HOPE and The Wilderness Society, which use narrative copy and interactive devices, as opposed to photos, to underscore their mission. And the five-year control for Johns Hopkins Health After 50 newsletter wisely limits the use of graphics to keep recipients focused on the detailed letter copy needed to describe a copy-rich newsletter product.
In all, it's refreshing to know that today's consumer is not so jaded by television, the Internet and four-color cell phone screens that he or she is not able recognize a compelling offer or message simply because it's presented in black and white.